Digging Up Democratic Skeletons

La Shawn Barber
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Posted: Feb 07, 2008 8:35 PM

[V]irtually every significant racist in American political history was a Democrat. – Bruce Bartlett

Democrats, seen as the civil rights party, supported slavery, opposed civil rights legislation, instituted the "Black Codes," and created the Jim Crow system. The Republican Party, in contrast, was founded in opposition to slavery, and supported post-Civil War and Civil Rights Movement-era legislation.

"All of the racism that we associate with [the southern] region of the country originated with and was enforced by elected Democrats," writes Bruce Bartlett, a former domestic policy advisor to President Ronald Reagan and a Treasury official under President George H.W. Bush. In Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past, Bartlett goes deep into the history of the Democratic Party and attempts to set the record straight.

Bartlett discusses the motivations of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to maintain slavery and how Andrew Johnson ("a Democrat his whole life") tried to block post-Civil War legislation designed to protect newly freed slaves. He includes obscure figures like Senator Benjamin Tillman from South Carolina, whose "consistent theme…was that black men had some sort of compulsion to mate with white women," and Senator Theodore Bilbo from Mississippi, whose "permanent resolution of the race problem" in 1938 was to send blacks back to Africa and/or create a 49th state for them "somewhere in the West."

Woodrow Wilson, a liberal who implemented progressive reforms while in office, also instituted racial segregation throughout the federal government. And Bartlett notes that Wilson's attorney general "did far more to repress free speech and political freedom" than Senator Joe McCarthy, a Republican, ever attempted. But when was the last time Hollywood made a movie about A. Mitchell Palmer?

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had a "reputation for being a progressive on the race issue," wasn't much better on civil rights. He appointed a Klan member to the Supreme Court and ordered the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. Republican Dwight Eisenhower, "conventionally portrayed as having done nothing for blacks during his eight years," passed civil rights bills in 1957 (the first since Reconstruction) and 1960. Eisenhower also sent federal troops to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Bartlett praises Democrat Harry Truman for signing an executive order establishing a presidential committee on civil rights, an unpopular move in the party, but spares none for President John F. Kennedy, who receives far more credit on civil rights than he deserves. Kennedy did nothing substantive on civil rights, contends Bartlett, and what he did do was largely symbolic as he tried to avoid antagonizing Southern Democrats. He credits President Lyndon B. Johnson for "finally repudiating both his own segregationist past and the Democratic Party's" in the wake of Kennedy's assassination.

And what about the so-called Southern strategy? Bartlett calls it a myth. There was no strategy "to carry racist votes through coded messages about crime and welfare, as is often alleged." During his campaign in 1968, President Richard M. Nixon emphasized his support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and picked Spiro Agnew as his vice president, a man reputed to be strong on civil rights.

The shift in Southern voting patterns from Democratic to Republican had to have been about race, right? According to Bartlett, economic changes in the South were the primary factor. During the Democrats' political reign, the South had been the poorest region. As the South's wealth increased, southerners became receptive to Republican messages of low taxes and small government.

People tend to forget that Nixon pushed to desegregate schools, denying federal aid to segregated school districts. "Just one month into his presidency," Bartlett writes, "any idea that Nixon was pursuing a Southern strategy had been thoroughly discredited."

Unfortunately, Nixon also implemented government race preferences.

Bartlett's meticulously researched Wrong on Race concludes with suggestions on how Republicans can reach out to black voters, including connecting on immigration policy and this stunner: getting behind the idea of slavery reparations. Bartlett tries to make the case on legal, public policy, and political grounds.

If reaching out to black voters has to involve reparations race pandering, don't bother. Despite that shocker at the end, Wrong on Race provides ammunition for Republicans fed up with being called racists.